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Until just a few years ago, if you wanted an action camera, you bought a GoPro. Thanks to good technology and better marketing, the company completely owned the market.
Recently, however, dozens of other companies have started making cameras that compete heavily on price and features. For many action camera buyers in 2018, especially those on a budget, picking one of these GoPro alternatives is a better option than buying the brand name version.
Picking the right model isn’t straightforward, however, and that’s why we’ve put together this buying guide. There’s often a big difference between cameras priced about the same, with a lot of garbage at the low end, and high cost not always a guarantee of quality.
Whether you’re just after a cheap but good GoPro knockoff, a high-quality version for shooting 4k video, a specialized action camera for diving, or simply want the best-value action camera on the market in 2018, we’ve got you covered.
- Best on a Tight Budget: Campark ACT74
- Best Value for Money: Akaso V50 Pro
- Runner-Up, Best Value for Money: Yi Lite
- Best for Shooting 4K Video: Yi 4K+
- Best for Divers on a Budget: AKASO Brave 4
- Best for Quality: Sony FDRX3000
- Best for Kids: VTech Kidizoom Action Cam 180
Best on a Tight Budget: Campark ACT74
With even the cheapest GoPro Hero model starting around $200, it’s hard to believe you can get anything decent for under a third of that.
While there’s no shortage of junk in the sub-$100 action camera market, search hard enough and you’ll find the occasional diamond in the rough. Right now, the shiniest of those diamonds is the Campark ACT74.
Given its specs and what comes in the box, this little camera is quite the bargain. You get 4k recording at 30fps, 16MP stills, and waterproofing to a very respectable 30m / 98ft with the bundled case. Wi-Fi is built in, which lets you transfer footage and control most settings via the mobile app.
The ACT74 ships with a pair of batteries rated at up to 90 minutes each, and a grab-bag of mounts that let you attach it to helmets, skateboards, handlebars, and more. You’d pay extra for all of these accessories when buying most other action cameras, making Campark’s offering even better value.
Of course, some compromises have been made to hit this camera’s aggressive price. Colour saturation and image detail aren’t particularly impressive, especially in low light, and you’ll get much smoother video shooting in HD than in 4k mode.
The 170-degree lens has an extremely wide viewing angle, but that comes at the cost of barrel distortion (ie, curvature) at the edges. Sound recording isn’t the best and can be quite muffled, a common problem with cheaper devices. That’s less of an issue than you might expect, though, since the focus with these sorts of cameras is usually on the visuals.
Overall, with good lighting and a steady hand, this camera can still deliver very usable footage both on land and under the waves. If you’re looking to try your hand at action photography and video, but don’t have much money to spend on it, the Campark ACT74 is the perfect place to start.
Best Value for Money: Akaso V50 Pro
While you can get a perfectly passable camera like the above Campark model for well under $100, spending a bit more gets you something considerably better. Our top value pick is the Akaso V50 Pro, which shoots video at up to 4k/30 fps, takes stills at 20MP, and has a variety of hardware and software features that lift it above the rest of the budget camera pack.
There’s a diving mode which compensates for the loss of red light underwater, and inbuilt image stabilization that does a decent job of reducing the judder from vibrations and shaky hands. Battery life is standard for this type of camera, at around 90 minutes.
You can quickly switch between four viewing angles, from narrow to super-wide, which is something we’d like to see more often in low-cost cameras. Picking a narrower field of view helps avoid the barrel distortion that’s a hallmark of many action camera videos, and there’s also a Distortion Calibration setting to help compensate for this issue.
Video quality is good, even in 4k, although colours can appear a little artificial or washed out if you’re not shooting in bright conditions.
In an unusual move, the V50 supports the use of an external clip-on microphone which plugs into the USB port on the side. It’s a welcome addition, especially since the inbuilt mic isn’t particularly good. If you plan to capture usable sound to go with your video, particularly voices, plan to spend a few extra bucks on the mic as well.
To sweeten the deal even further, Akaso throws in a range of accessories. There’s an extra battery and dedicated charger, a wrist-mounted remote control, several different mounts, and a waterproof case that’s rated down to 30m / 98ft.
There’s also the usual Android and iOS app support, connecting to your phone over Wi-Fi for controlling settings and transferring files.
Runner-Up, Best Value for Money: Yi Lite
Yi’s range of action cameras has forged a reputation for quality on a budget in recent years, and its cheapest model came close to being our top value pick. The Yi Lite packs a lot into its unassuming body, with plenty to offer those who don’t need all the bells and whistles of high-end models.
While it’s technically a 4k camera, the 15 fps (NTSC) or 20 fps (PAL) frame rates at that resolution aren’t enough for smooth video unless you’re using a tripod, especially since the inbuilt image stabilization doesn’t work in that mode.
Shooting in HD, however, is a whole different story, with smooth 50/60 fps video that’s surprisingly good given the cost of the camera. Still images are taken at 16MP, and you’ll get good low-light performance and around two hours of battery no matter which video mode you’re using.
While a little small, the 2″ touchscreen is responsive, and the interface easy to use, making the camera’s various settings more accessible than you find on most budget cameras. Don’t expect too much from recorded sound, however — as with other low-cost action cameras, it’s not the best.
The Yi Lite typically costs around the same as our top value pick, the AKASO V50 Pro (above), when bundled with the waterproof case. If you know you’ll never take it underwater, you can save a few bucks by leaving the casing out.
Best for Shooting 4K Video: Yi 4K+
As impressed as we are by the Yi Lite (above), there are a few things it doesn’t do well. The most obvious is shooting 4k video — you’ll get poor, often unusable, results when shooting on the move unless you drop back to HD. If you want quality 4k footage without spending a fortune, you’ll need to go for the Yi 4K instead.
Capable of 4k video at 60fps, the camera’s specs are similar to GoPro’s Hero 6 Black at a noticeably lower price. There’s electronic image stabilization when shooting at 4k/30fps and below, and if you want to take stills with it, the 12MP sensor does a better-than-average job.
You’ll get good colour and detail from both video and still images, with support for saving photos in RAW or JPG format for more editing flexibility afterward. Unsurprisingly, a high-speed micro-SD card is vital for best results when shooting video at high quality settings.
You can hook up an external microphone via the adapter in the box, and charging is done via USB-C, rather than the older micro-USB option we usually see. There’s both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support, and a larger 2.2″ touchscreen than on the cheaper model. Voice control is included as well, if shouting at your camera appeals.
So what’s not to like? Well, as with its other models, Yi doesn’t include extra batteries, mounts, or other accessories in the box, and you’ll need to pay extra for them. The camera also isn’t natively waterproof, unlike the GoPro models, although it does come with a waterproof housing rated to 40m / 130ft.
Recorded audio should be better for the amount you’re paying, and you won’t get most of the fancy extras — GPS, accelerometer, and gyroscope — that GoPro includes. In all honesty, though, the majority of action camera buyers don’t need the data those sensors provide.
Overall this is a solid GoPro competitor at a sharp price, and is worth a very close look if you’re planning to regularly shoot 4k video.
Best for Divers on a Budget: AKASO Brave 4
Action cameras are ideal for diving — it’s the main way I’ve used mine over the years — but unless you’re underwater all the time, it’s hard to justify the cost of a GoPro just for that purpose.
Fortunately there’s no need to spend that kind of money, with good alternatives available that’ll handle the needs of most recreational divers for a whole lot less cash. The AKASO Brave 4 is the prime example, an inexpensive little camera with a bunch of diver-friendly features.
It’s essentially a slimmed-down version of our top value pick, the AKASO V50 Pro (above), with many of the same features. Basic image stabilization is included, as is control of the viewing angle from narrow to super-wide.
There’s still a big range of mounts and accessories thrown in, including the wrist-mounted remote. It’s not waterproof, unfortunately, so you’ll need to use the camera’s buttons to change settings underwater.
At roughly 90 minutes, battery life is enough to get through even the longest dive. Since there’s a second battery and an external charger included in the box, you can always charge one battery from a portable battery pack back on the boat while using the other one inside the camera.
You don’t get great 4k video, however (footage is much better in HD) and image stabilization is better on the V50 model. If those are important to you, it’s worth dropping the extra fifty bucks or so on the higher-end version. If not, then save your cash — at under $100, the Brave 4 is easily one of the best cheap GoPro alternatives for divers.
For those needing even better waterproofing, the housing included with the Sony FDRX3000 (below) is rated to 60m / 195 feet. You’ll pay considerably more for it, but since that depth is well beyond recreational SCUBA limits, you can be certain the camera can handle even your deepest dives with ease.
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Best for Quality: Sony FDRX3000
Sony’s taken a different approach when it comes to action cameras, with its FDRX3000 sacrificing a little size and weight for excellent image stabilization, proper zoom, and better video. You’ll definitely notice the difference in your bank balance as well, but that’s hardly unusual for Sony gear.
While it’s larger than the other models listed here, this is by no means a big camera — at 29mm x 47mm x 83mm and 114g, there’s no problem mounting it on your helmet or handlebars.
The most impressive aspect of the FDRX3000 is its optical image stabilization. Far better than the electronic version used by cheaper competitors, the visual difference is obvious, with smooth pans and virtually none of the shake and judder you get with other action cameras. Colours and detail are also impressive, especially in good lighting conditions.
A pair of front-mounted microphones means you’ll get better sound recording than most other action cameras, and in stereo, but there’s also the option of using an external mic if you need it. Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth are all built-in, although they drain the battery. You’ll get close to two hours with them all turned off, and as little as half that when they’re enabled.
The camera maxes out at 4k / 30fps. For the money, it’d be nice to see that boosted to 60fps, although the image stabilization means 30fps video is much better than with most of the competition. Video quality is typically excellent, but still images aren’t as good — this is a video-focused device, and it shows.
For those shooting underwater, the bundled housing is rated to an impressive 60m / 195 feet. There’s not much else in the box, which is unfortunate — at this price you’d hope for basics like a lens cap, mounts, or an extra battery. Those, and a range of other useful extras, can all be bought separately as needed.
Best for Kids: VTech Kidizoom Action Cam 180
Do you have young kids who’d like to film their own adventures? Not prepared to spend a whole bunch of cash to let them do it? Check out the VTech Kidizoom 180.
The bright design and simple controls are suitably child-friendly, while the ruggedized case protects the camera from both damage and water up to 6ft deep. The lens rotates through 180 degrees, so it can be used for both selfies and more traditional video.
A pair of mounts is included in the packaging, one for use on bike handlebars, the other for attaching the camera to flat surfaces like skateboards and helmets. A small amount of storage is built in, but you’ll likely end up adding a micro-SD card for extra capacity.
The non-removable battery lasts up to two hours, and charges via the included micro-USB cable that’s also used to offload photos and video to a computer.
Don’t expect your child to shoot an Oscar-winning masterpiece with the Kidizoom 180 — the 640×480 sensor is the same resolution as old camera phones from the early 2000’s — but it’s fine for getting started, at a price that’s very hard to beat.
Title image via farioff, others via respective manufacturers.